Thursday, July 7, 2011

How Was Africa?

How can I explain how my experience was when you ask me?  I have been responding by saying amazing (because it was), but not in the amazing vacation realm that your mind might first assume.  It was amazingly enlightening, eye opening and difficult to comprehend all at the same time.  The type of amazing that you may never understand.  You are amazed by my account of shark diving and the safari.  I love to tell the stories, but to be honest I do not really care about those stories.

 I don’t make these comments in a defensive tone but rather in a personally reflective tone about how I have been feeling from others asking how my experience was.  So, what do I say when you don’t ask me the hard questions?  How do I explain what I learned without overwhelming you with a culture that you may know nothing about?  How do I explain that I now understand why some people have to sell their bodies to feed their families and no longer negatively judge them?  How do I explain that I no longer like to indulge in things that I did before I left?  How do I explain that I have overwhelming feelings of guilt for things that I have in my life?  How do I explain that whatever you may complain about to me is really not a big deal?  How do I explain to you that I no longer want to have another shallow conversation?  How do I explain to you that since I left South Africa, I feel like something is missing?  The only ones who may know the hard questions to ask or the ones that I am able to explain things too are the ones who were there beside me. 

Friday, June 10, 2011


The group at Mzoli's in Guguletu.  Notice Shane's twin in the middle.

Wine tasting at Solm's Delta vineyard.  Beautiful place!

 During our time in Guguletu we visited Noxie's school, John Prima.  This is Noxie's first grade class.  Noxie is in the blue by Kendall and Lindsay.

 This picture is from our last night in Guguletu.  We spent the night singing, dancing and eating.  It was a bittersweet end to our amazing time there.

This is the view from Riverview Lodge.  Chelsey and I were taking pictures before we left for Cape Point.

 This is a picture of the group at Robben Island. It was super windy! Look how cute Brian is....(he helped me post these and has requested a shout out)

This is a picture of Kendall and I trying a smily (sheep's head) on our last night in Guguletu. I clearly loved it.

What I Have Learned

I have learned a lot about the culture and history of South Africa in the context of leadership during my time here.  I have also learned a lot about myself, some things I think I already knew but was unable of how to translate it into my life.  For example, I have realized that I love to give back to the community and would benefit from spending more time volunteering in my own local community.  Here is a little more of what I have learned thus far.

A hug is one of the most valuable gifts to give and receive.
-       I often used to underestimate the power of showing someone you care.  The looks I’ve received and numerous hugs while here, make me certain that showing someone you care is never wasted.

Giving is more rewarding than receiving.
-       Obviously this is self-explanatory and something that many of you may have experienced in your own lives.  But being around others that have so many obstacles to overcome and are extremely grateful for those who give is something I find personally motivating.  It motivates me to become more involved in giving back to my own community and making a difference where it is needed.

Your emotions are valid.  Never write them off as invalid.
-       So many times during this trip I have become overwhelmed with emotions.  I have learned that expressing those first initial emotions and any that follow there after are a healthy way to learn and cope with experiences.

Connections can be created with the most unsuspecting people in the most unsuspecting places.
-       I never expected to feel part of a family half way around the world.  I have created a family with my fifteen fellow travelers, my host family in Guguletu, the JL Zwane congregation and our trusty facilitators (Alan, Jane, Godfrey & Herschel).  I never expected that this feeling of community could be demonstrated so strongly so far away from what I call home.

Relationships cross over borders, race and socioeconomic status.
-       In many instances, I have found myself surrounded by those of a different race and socioeconomic status from South Africa.  I have never felt awkward or unwelcomed though, I have felt as though I belong.  This feeling of belonging with those from different backgrounds than myself has taught me extreme gratitude and perspective in my own life.  So remember, just because someone may be different in surface level ways, there are many more layers to peel back that may surprise you.

Be thankful for all that you have and you will have a lot to be thankful about.
-       So often I view things as needs, when they are really wants.  Seeing those who struggle to obtain needs in South Africa has put me into a different mindset regarding what I have.  I have so many material things that are not something I have purchased for survival or my family, like how many families in the townships do.  Therefore, I need to remember to be more thankful for what I have before trying to think that more things in my life will improve my life.

Reaching a level of discomfort in your life is something to embrace, not shun.  From discomfort comes reflection and room for change.
-       Many experiences during my time here have taken me out of my comfort zone.  If you stay in your comfort zone, it disables you from finding different perspectives and being able to reflect on your own level of comfort.  From reaching these levels of discomfort I have learned things about

It is not what we have in our lives, but who we have in our life that counts.
-Often in the townships families may have limited needs and wants but there sense of community is always in abundance.  As long as you have positive and healthy relationships in your life you will have so much to be thankful for.

Do not be quick to judge because first judgments can be misleading.
-       At times I caught myself judging the way someone lived or his or her situation while in Guguletu.  But I have learned to catch myself before going into that judgment phase and take a step back.  In most cases, many parts of the puzzle are missing when one is quick to judge and does not ask questions.  I have found that getting all of the pieces before forming an opinion makes others gain more respect for you and what you have to say.

Hospice Visits

Thursday, June 2nd

I find myself feeling nauseous once again during my experiences in Guguletu.  We visited the home of a woman who is HIV positive and currently a hospice patient.  Her living conditions were horrible; she lives in a shack full of holes about the size of a small college dorm room with her child.  When we walked in, she could not even focus her eyes and would grimace in pain constantly.  The air was thick, uncomfortable and smelled of sewage, as the large population of flies flew around the small room.  Seeing someone in such discomfort in those living conditions was so hard to digest that I just became numb and didn’t know if I should cry, leave the room or stay and hear what she had to say.

I decided to stay and hear her speak, as she muttered very unclear sentences, she said something that created even more discomfort in the room.  She said, “I’m sick of American tourists coming to see me and making broken promises”.  I began to feel dizziness and shame at the same time after those words were spoken.  Her lack of awareness made me wondering if she ever even understood that Americans were coming to visit or if she ever even gave consent for us to come see her.  I felt stupid to be standing in someone’s personal space while they were in hospice and unable to articulate or help themselves.  The nurse then explained that the patient and her child could go days without eating due to lack of funds and therefore her ARV meds do not work properly.  The extent of what the hospice care includes is cleaning the patients and checking to see what else they can do, but rarely do they provide meals.  This specific patient had not eaten for one day along with the rest of her family.
I was numb with emotion, but soon began to cry hysterically (yes, again) as we left and headed to the car.  It took me a good ten minutes to calm myself and even articulate what I had just seen and experienced.  All I could say to the car full of faces starring back at me for a response was that I felt stupid.  I don’t know why those were my first words, but I felt as though I had just entered an area where I was not welcomed and completely unable to help, all I could do was watch.  But I was sick of watching, I felt as though I was treating these people like an exhibit in a museum by invading their space and studying their situation.  But most of all, I felt stupid because I went in there feeling as though I understood the face and pandemic of HIV and AIDS.  That is when I realized there are too many faces of HIV and AIDS for me to even come close to truly understanding.

I didn’t have enough strength mentally or emotionally at that point to enter the next hospice home.  I waited in the car with Brian and Suzie, who were at the time battling with the experience internally as well.  The group returned to the car in tears.  I remember seeing Chelsey’s tear streaked face as she walked in, she couldn’t look at me or anyone else and just went straight to sit down.  The group told us that the second visit was worse that the first.  It was an older man in an even smaller one bedroom run down shack.  He had open bedsores and needed to be changed like a young child.

We’ve been put in this situation to look through their lens, but soon the nurses returned laughing about our level of discomfort and emotion and did not seek to understand the experience through our lens.  The experience for us at the time was absolutely traumatizing.  The majority of us felt as though we were treating the hospice patients as an exhibit, one to which we were unwelcomed.  I felt like I was watching a holocaust movie from the sickness I was seeing and from the sick feeling in my stomach that was occurring.  I can see numerous sick faces and I understand the seriousness, but what can I do?  I am stuck with no tools to help.  I am frustrated.  I am emotionally numb.  I wonder why I was born into such a fortunate home while others are born into poverty.  I feel lost.

I can never really accurately describe the extent of what I saw to those of you reading the blog, but all I know is that an experience that took ten minutes is something that will stay with me forever.

Today was a roller coaster of emotions.  I end the day overall exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally.  After lunch at JL Zwane with a mission group of students from Georgia, both of our groups attended the Siyaya musical education group.  It was a refreshing event for the day after such a traumatic experience earlier with the hospice visits.  The director said something that really calmed me at the time.  He said, “tourists come here and have sad looks on their faces as they stare onto our streets, but look at the streets closely and you will see that we all have smiles”.  This seemed to really ring true to my own experience.  Because so often I look with sadness at the citizens of the townships but they do not look back at me with sadness.  Instead they enjoy life and enrich their lives with a passion for food, music and community.

After reflecting on this journal entry and experience a lot has changed.  It has become easier for me to view the hospice visit through a different lens.  The woman who spoke of Americans in such a negative connotation was discussed later between our group and Reverend Spiwo.  We asked why she spoke so negatively and claimed that the church did not assist her.  We were informed that the church does assist her regularly and that due to her mindset from the lack of food and use of ARV’s she may have chosen to take out her anger on those who she felt had the power to change things.  Therefore, since we were white Americans she inferred that we were there to help, instead of visit and observe.  In the culture of Gugs visiting someone who is on hospice is not invasive, instead it is the way that they educate others about HIV and AIDS within the township.  This experience was a good example of how reflection can really change the perspective of an experience.  However, I have learned that my feelings are anger and frustration at the time were valid and something that helped me reflect.

A Lesson from the AIDS Man

Monday, May 30th

            I have been battling with what to write about during our time in Guguletu since all of it was so beneficial and powerful.  This story was one that I continued to battle with on whether I should write about it, but after continuing to think about it for a week I knew that I had to share what I had learned.

            On Monday we traveled to the poverty-ridden township of Khayelitsha to visit to Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) site.  In order to give you some insight into exactly where we were I will tell some interesting facts that I learned.  It is one of the newer townships in the western cape flats created after many of the townships began to become over populated.  To give some background on just how much this township struggles here are some statistics:

*2 rapes are reported each day.  (These are just the reported rapes, many go unreported and may be committed by members of the victims family)
*There is 1 toilet for every 10 homes in Khayelitsha.
*There is 1 tap water for every 20 homes in Khayelitsha.

            This lack of proper sanitation leads to people having to venture out to find a toilet or place to go to the bathroom in the night.  These people that go out to find a toilet have a high chance of being raped when using a public bathroom.  The lack of clean water leaves countless children sick with bacteria infections.  No type of drain system exists in the township either, creating good conditions for homes to flood.

On top of the sanitation problem, the justice system has really let down the citizens of Khayelitsha.  A case from 6 years ago, where a lesbian woman was beaten and murdered by 20 men due to her sexual orientation, has still to be discussed due to continuous postponements.  Sadly, numerous cases such as this exist in the townships.  We later found out that it is also common for lesbians to be gang raped by males who believe that it will change her sexual orientation.  I got sick to my stomach when I heard that these cases are being put off due to sexual orientation and that acts of rape are being targeted towards the GLBT community. 

I wanted to share this information because in my opinion from what I saw of Khayelitsha, it was a more intense type of poverty overall from Guguletu.  It was hard to see all of the shacks and overpopulating after knowing that by the end of the day two women, maybe someone I had even seen that day, would be raped.  It was hard for me to even fathem these facts at first, as I’m sure if you are reading it is as well hard to digest.

            All of these unfortunate stories and statistics lead up to us meeting the AIDS Man, as he said we should call him.  We walked into the TAC building with numerous eyes questioning us as we walked in a mob down the streets of Khayelitsha.  The AIDS Man was actually the first HIV positive person that I have met.  He was wearing his HIV positive shirt and completely comfortable sitting there while talking to us about his journey.  He has taken the path to be open about his HIV positive status to the community, something that can be criticized and feared by members of the community.  As he was speaking, he was so strong in his purpose and positive about his status.  It was personally thought provoking for me when he said, “I’m not sick, but my blood is infected with HIV”.  Many times people, even myself at times, view those who are HIV positive as sick and near death.  But in most cases, being HIV positive is just an obstacle to deal with in life, not a life threatening disease.  By the AIDS Man taking the positive approach to continue to live his life to the fullest, he is really living his life and only lives with HIV in his blood, not as a negative hold over his mindset.  He now works to help others who are HIV positive share their story and get support for ARV’s.

As he was speaking I began to mindlessly write what it might have been like first finding out you were HIV positive and how he dealt with it.

Positivity about being Positive

Rewind back to the second that the negative turned positive.
Imagine Resentment, Pain and Uncertainty.
Join the Number?  Join the Statistic?
Break the mold.
Stand up in the crowd.
Be authentic.
Be positive.
Inspire the rest.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Out of Nothingness, Comes Possibilities"

Aaron, this is my second In-Country writing assignment. :)

After spending only six days and five night in the township of Guguletu, the overall takeaway has been extremely valuable and life changing.  This experience like each one before it will continue to mean different things as I reflect further and try to make sense of everything.  Before I left to go to Gugs, I was trying to hide my nerves.  I was nervous to be the minority and unaware of how I would deal with the living conditions.  More than anything, most of the locals in Cape Town would look puzzled when I told them we were staying in Guguletu for a week.  For those who go to Guguletu to do volunteer work or to try to experience the culture, it is rare for them to immerse themselves completely and stay in the homes in Guguletu.  Therefore, I knew we were getting a slice more of the real experience by becoming a part of the Guguletu community by living in their homes, eating our meals with them and spending our entire day absorbed in their community.

My expectations were blurry before we arrived to Guguletu, but soon whichever expectations I had were exceeded, by the instant feeling of community that was represented and offered to us.  The feeling of community became deeper as the week went on; the people of Gugs were really set on having us see how their community works.

One of my biggest struggles throughout my time in Guguletu was trying to understand the difference in how their community processes things.  For example, one of the most emotional days for me was the day of hospice visits.  It was hard for me to understand that in their culture, it was not intrusive to show hospice patients dying from HIV and AIDS.  They viewed it as an educational experience so we could really view what the face of HIV and AIDS looks like.  My first instinct was to view it as intrusive and taking advantage of the hospice patients.  When I returned to the car crying hysterically, it was hard for the people of Guguletu who were with us to understand.  They have already experienced losing loved ones from HIV and AIDS and seeing a person that is sick from HIV and AIDS; something that I have never seen.  While death is still a very sad experience for the community, it is much more common.  I had to become understanding of their culture and take off my preconceived lens of hospice patients, death and the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

The amount that I learned from others during my time in Guguletu was invaluable.  I could go on for day about things that I learned from each individual that I developed a relationship with.  The most significant thing that I learned from my home stay family of Akhona and Noxie was the value of family and friends.  Akhona and Noxie both dealt with struggles in tragically losing loved ones in their family but stayed so strong from inner strength and strength given by those loved friends and families that supported them.  I have always had a strong value on friends and family, but during my home stay experience it just reinstalled how important those relationships are for the major times of hardship in ones life.

The forms of leadership in the townships were inspiring to observe.  There is leadership in the youth group at church that uses their free time to volunteer in their community and talk about the hard issues that their community faces.  By opening up those difficult discussions and leading by example, the youth group is making a difference by trying to rewrite the stereotypes of teen pregnancy and youth gang activity that plague the community.  There is also leadership in the children of Guguletu that attend school everyday in hopes of a better education and life for the future.  I viewed things such as starting difficult conversations and attending school as forms of leadership because any positive difference being made in the township was a glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow.

On the last day of our stay, Reverend Spiwo had a closing conversation with us to ask questions and reflect on our time in Guguletu.  He identified the largest problem of the community as mindset.  For so long black and coloured Africans were treated horribly and viewed as not equal due to apartheid.  They were forced out of their homes and adopted this township way of life in order to survive and since then it has become born and bred into their family lines.  This mindset of not being equal and or having less worth infects the community of Guguletu and other townships.  Reverend Spiwo stated that, “The biggest challenge in leadership is getting people to believe”.  He needs to have the community of Guguletu believe that they can live a better life and receive a better education.  But without having a firm set of believers that can pass on this vision, the vision moves much slower and gets tangled up in different sections of the community.

I have personally experienced this in my own leadership roles throughout my lifetime.  When others do not believe in your vision or do not see it as their own, you find yourself at a standstill.  The hard part is figuring out how to overcome the standstill and move forward.  I become very discouraged in leadership roles during standstills because it makes me question my own ability to lead and frustrates me when I cannot find a way to make others believe.  I did learn and observe some methods that work to create the belief such as: breaking the problems into smaller categories and focusing efforts in that region.  Also, utilizing resources was a major method of leadership that the community used on a regular basis.  I hope to exercise some of these methods within my own context of leadership positions.

Reverend Spiwo also said something that I found to apply to many things in life.  He explained, “Out of nothingness, comes possibilities”, while referring to the possibilities for the citizens of Guguletu to grow and better their community.  It made me realize that sometimes in life when you are not handed all of the tools to create or move forward to your destination it is not a hindrance, instead it is an opportunity: an opportunity to grow, to build, to learn, to question, to analyze and to make your own way through.  I sometimes find that I easily procrastinate or give up when I am not given all of the right tools in life to complete something because the idea of reinventing a way to accomplish a task can lead to failure.  But by fearing failure, you will never realize your potential or the opportunities that can come out of what you once saw as ‘nothingness’.  Overall, this experience just really refreshed my outlook on life and how I want to live mine.  I know that this experience will continue to have lasting effects in my journey in leadership and life.


It’s hard to breath right now.  I just went on a trip to deliver the last of the food parcels with Elisa, Brittany, Kelsey, Chelsey and Riise.  A boy from the church was there to help us deliver the parcels.  All of us assumed nothing of it and believed him to be a volunteer from church until our last delivery.  Our last delivery was his home.  At first Chelsey, Brittany and I stayed in the car due to the cold and were unaware it was his home.  We soon entered what was the most difficult home that I have seen thus far.  The back door was punctured with holes, which let the cold air in.  The kitchen had minimal appliances and did not look sanitary to prepare food in at all.  There was only one bedroom and it was the boy, Kwanele’s room.  He explained that the shack used to be his Grandpa’s.  His grandpa passed away and left the house to his parents, his brother and him.  His dad passed in 2005 and his mom passed away a month ago, leaving his brother and him to fend for themselves.  Kwanele explained that his brother lives in a shack in the back and drinks most of the day.

Kwanele’s room had a ceiling made of wooden planks with poor insulation from the cold, if any.  The light switch was hanging by a wire from the ceiling.  He had black and white pictures from Facebook hanging in his room that showed his choir and church.  He told us he was still in high school, but his dream was to go to the university someday, even though he didn’t have any money right now.  He pulled out a course guidebook from the University of Cape Town and told us he liked to read it and decide what courses he would like to take.  His dream is to become an opera singer and he would enjoy business as a backup.  I got emotional the second he pulled out the course book and said he loved to read it.  That course book symbolized so much to him; a look into the future, a dream and a way to provide for his family.  Brittany then pulled out the business card for, “These Numbers Have Faces” program and handed it to Kwanele.  She explained how it could possibly help him pay for college someday.  The look on Kwanele’s face overtook me.  His smile was huge as he promised that he would put the card in a safe place and contact Justin as soon as he got to a computer in town.

We then exchanged names for Facebook and took a picture with Kwanele in front of his home.  I gave him a hug goodbye and made him promise me that he would contact Justin and never give up on making his dreams come true.  While I was hugging Kwanele I broke into tears; the kind of tears where you cannot speak or breathe.  How inspirational that Kwanele still attends school and pursues his dreams after all that he has experienced in life.  Kwanele chooses to rise above the constant obstacles of not having food and money and stay positive and follow his passions.  Some struggle to follow their passion while having fewer obstacles.  By now, Kwanele could have easily joined gang activity in Guguletu or joined his brother in abusing alcohol but instead he chose to live a life where he can be something someday.  His story was so moving that it could at this point in my journey really have an extreme impact.  I plan on following up with Kwanele as I watch him accomplish his goals.